May 29, 2024
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A Family of Authors Highlights Inspiring Female Sports Heroes in Newest Book

Why mess with a winning formula?

Back in June, 2016, The Jewish Link reviewed a book by Greg Zuckerman and his two sons, Gabriel and Elijah, of West Orange. “Rising Above” focused almost exclusively on interviews of famous male athletes who had overcome adversity to achieve greatness. The book was very well received, particularly by those in their teens.

The Zuckermans, active members of their community both at their shul, AABJ&D, and at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, were asked by their publisher to follow up with similar inspiring stories about female athletes. The result was “Rising Above, Inspiring Women in Sports.”

When asked how the process and interactions with female athletes differed from those of males, Greg replied, “It really wasn’t so different. They all had handlers, and the older athletes tended to be more patient and giving.” One clear similarity: “When my boys were present for interviews, the athletes were more eager to share their life’s lessons.”

When pressed, Zuckerman said that besides whatever other challenges each athlete faced, “almost all of them had body issues that made them feel uncomfortable.” He offered Simone Biles, US gymnastics superstar at the 2016 Olympics, as a case in point. She spoke of her muscular, somewhat hefty build, and how she’d wear baggy clothes to school to avoid taunts. While performing at a tournament when she was still an up-and-comer, she related how she had done poorly in one competition and had fallen. Afterwards, she overheard several male coaches behind a curtain saying it was to be expected because she was fat. It was an utter humiliation for her.

Biles had other issues as well. She grew up very poor, raised by a mother who was a drug addict. She often went hungry, admitting to Zuckerman that she resented a neighborhood cat because it was well fed. To this day, she has no desire to own a cat.

Tennis star Venus Williams has quietly dealt with her own battles. She suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that causes her incredible joint pain and fatigue. She’s had it for years, but it wasn’t identified by name until recently. Tennis, which is all about endurance and pushing one’s body to its limits, is grueling for someone in perfect health. For Williams to persevere under those conditions is remarkable.

When asked which athletes were the most gracious and accommodating, the first name out of Zuckerman’s mouth was Kerri Strug, hero of the 1996 Summer Olympics. In the team competition, Strug had fallen in her first attempt at vault, damaging her ankle. Her coach said she needed to go forward with her second vault to guarantee a gold medal for the US. She landed it, and then collapsed from the pain. Afterwards, her coach needed to carry her to the medals podium. While the entire country considered her a hero for bringing victory to the US team under such adverse conditions, Zuckerman explained that Strug’s take on it was very different. “In her mind, she saw herself as a failure, embarrassed that her ankle crumbled when she was on an international stage. It didn’t matter that she won team gold. It took her quite a while to gain perspective.”

The younger Zuckermans, now co-authors of their second book, were asked to weigh in on their latest effort and to compare the experiences. Gabriel, now aged 19 and back from his gap year in Israel at a Jerusalem Yeshiva, was succinct. “It didn’t matter whether it was about a male or female; the inspiration derived from how each overcame challenges was the same.” Elijah, a sophomore at Joseph Kushner High School, held similar views. “The themes and lessons learnt from each athlete were amazing.” He was most inspired by Bethany Hamilton. “She was a surfer whose arm was torn off by a shark at age 13. Rather than quitting, she continued with her dream, turned professional and went on to successfully compete despite her handicap.”

As Greg summed up, “Everyone is dealing with something in their lives. Everyone has multiple challenges. Persevering in the face of those issues is the lesson that can be taken from this book.”

Published by Penguin/Philomel Books. To order a copy, please visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

By Robert Isler

 Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and a freelance writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

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